Fashion and math

In a public school mindset, fashion and math have little to do with each other. They may even be on far ends of a spectrum: the popular kids are the display models, the eye candy, for the newest, trendiest fashions. These kids are concerned with looking their best and standing out in a crowd. Meanwhile the “nerds,” or the studies-oriented kids, are concerned with getting the best grades they can and achieving as much academically as possible.

However, outside of public school, these two are connected in numerous ways, and our fashion affects much of the way we live our lives each day. For myself, I prefer dressing in a formal manner each day. I have chosen to dress like this for several reasons, but to sum them up, it simply makes me feel good. But lately I have encountered two potential problems regarding the clothes I choose to wear.

The first problem is evident from the clothing pieces’ price tags. Suits, formal button-up shirts, slacks and dress shoes are expensive. And though I like the way these make me feel when I wear them, they are costing me a sizable amount of money. This leads me to think, for what reason do I have money? My mind immediately goes to the parable of the talents that Jesus told in Matthew 25, where Jesus speaks of how three servants used money that their master put in their possession so the servants would multiply the money. The master tells the first two servants, who doubled what he had given them, that they did well and had been faithful. When he deals with the third servant, who did not increase the money at all, he is displeased.

The money in this parable represents more than money. It represents all that God has given us in this life. That means our health, our natural and spiritual gifts and skills, our material possessions, our relationships, our intellects, and our money, as well as anything else we have or will have. So it seems that God wants us to use what we have to multiply it in a way that builds the kingdom of God (see Matthew 6:33).

I want to please my master, so I want to increase what he has given me. Is spending money on expensive clothing a wise way to do this? There is no one answer to this question; each situation brings different motivations for spending money on expensive clothing. Yet that is what is important: the motivation. Also known as the heart behind the action. Why am I purchasing these expensive clothes? This is what determines whether my decision to buy the clothing is aiding or hindering the spread of God’s kingdom in the world.

Let me provide two imaginary situations for clarity. In both I am buying an expensive suit. In the first, I am buying the suit because I have been craving it. When I see myself in the fitting-room mirror, I decide to buy the suit because it makes me feel better than when I do without it, even though I already have three new suits at home. In the second situation, I have a job interview in two days and have a mish-mash of dress shirts and slacks and one blazer, none of which look good together.

Now let’s analyze each scenario. The same action is taking place in both: I am buying a suit. However, my heart is in different places in each situation. In the first my decision to buy the suit is based on my greed, pride and (ironically) lack of confidence. In the second my decision is based on my desire to impress the recruiters at my job interview. In the first I am buying the suit for no event or purpose in particular–I simply want it to belong to me. In the second I am trying to get a job in order to earn income and be responsible for my own life (assuming the job interview is for the only job I would have).

The root of the matter is this: in the first situation, I am living for my own gain; in the second, I am living for the kingdom of God’s gain.

That is the first potential problem I have faced with my choice of fashion. The second is this: what effect is my choice of fashion having on the people around me? How is my fashion affecting my relationships?

This issue is muddier than the former, and the former is no filtered pond. In this case I must put myself in the place of the people around me. I like to take things to extremes to make a point, and this problem is no exception, so I ask myself: How do I feel when I am around someone dressed to the nines and I am wearing sweats? This doesn’t take long for me to answer: I usually feel inferior to the dressed-up person. I feel like I should look more formal.

This rarely happens to me, though, so in my mind I take the next step away from the extreme case: how do I feel when I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt while a man near me is outfitted in a three-piece suit? I tend to not feel inferior, but still slightly uncomfortable. This set of circumstances is more common than the last, so I should be aware of when I put other people in this situation.

Yet two asterisks attached to this latter situation come to my mind. First, if I am passing a well-dressed man on the street when I am wearing a casual outfit, I don’t think about how he makes me feel. Second, if I know a person well and he is wearing a suit as we converse, it doesn’t affect my level of comfort.

When it comes to whether or not my decision to wear formal outfits on a daily basis has a negative effect on my relationships, I have no simple answer. It may and it may not. And this again has roots in the matter of the kingdom of God: is my reason for wearing formal clothes aiding or hindering the spread of the kingdom in the world? The answer to this question will change from one situation to the next, so I must always ask myself this question. Indeed, no matter what my preferred fashion is, I should ask myself this question so that I “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” as Jesus told us to do.

As it turns out, fashion and math have quite a bit in common. Three questions can summarize their relationship: How is my fashion affecting my wallet? How is my fashion affecting the number and quality of my relationships with other people? How is my fashion affecting the spread of God’s kingdom in the world? When we think about this, we are learning to have a gospel-centered mindset. And with that mindset, according to Jesus, is how we are to live.

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